Sunday 18 February 2018

Ulster in dire need of Kiss of life in Munster showdown

Under-fire coach nearing point of no return as province's big plan to be 'top of pile' flounders

Les Kiss will be hoping that his Ulster charges kick-start their new year by beating Munster. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Les Kiss will be hoping that his Ulster charges kick-start their new year by beating Munster. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

In two months' time, seven years will have elapsed since Ulster Rugby Chief Executive Shane Logan delivered a statement which, even within his passionate support base, might have vaulted even overweening ambition.

"Whatever plan we put together has to deliver Ulster being top of the pile in Ireland, Europe and indeed the world," declared Logan.

A year later his side, then coached by Brian McLaughlin, were offered the chance to tick at least one of those lofty boxes when they reached the final of the European Cup for the first time since their 1999 win.

Unfortunately for them, they encountered an unstoppable Leinster machine which was then arguably at the zenith of its irrepressible powers.

Within a few months, Director of Rugby David Humphreys and McLaughlin would leave and, soon, so would a clatter of subsequent head coaches. They all failed to emulate those two men and, if anything, have accelerated a decline in fortunes.

Dismal

As their dismal dismissal in Galway before Christmas illustrated, Ulster Rugby fans might now genuinely wonder if they can even aspire to be top of the pile in Ireland, never mind Europe or the world.

Everyone involved with the province now needs to reassess their positions - starting from the top down - for the tide of public sympathy seems to have taken a potentially irreversible turn.

The faithful will reassemble at the Kingspan this evening in great numbers as they expect a bounce from the unmitigated shambles that occurred in Galway and, most probably, they will see the win they are demanding.

That has been the trend in recent times, with Ulster foraging to retrieve a result from the direst of circumstances - be it a defeat in Italy or an inexplicable draw in Newport - but all the while still loitering in a nervous limbo, awaiting the next disaster.

This is no way for an ambitious, prosperous province to be laying the foundations for world domination.

Local support is flagging. When the normally parochial press are screaming headlines such as 'Last Kissmas', it can clearly be seen that even in this festive period, charity is being discreetly withdrawn.

The suggestion that former Ireland assistant Les Kiss will be excused from the final year of his contract at the end of the season may be refuted within the corridors of Ulster power.

However, the fact the suggestions have emerged indicate that the "noise" to which the embattled Australian referred to in Galway may soon become impossible to ignore.

Dismiss

While it may be easier to dismiss the fact that Logan and his fellow blazers are contemplating pulling the trigger on yet another head coach - their fourth since that 2012 European Cup final appearance - it is far more difficult to believe that they are not musing upon Kiss's future.

The IRFU will need to be kept in the loop, too, as their imprimatur is required before any hiring and firing is done and it is probable that they will also inquire less than gently where exactly the grand plans for world domination currently stand.

On the surface Ulster have a sporting chance of maintaining their interest in both domestic and European combat until beyond the spring, were it not for the fact that too much of this campaign, like so many before it, has been blighted by inconsistency.

Kiss, who rose to prominence within the Ireland set-up for the choke tackle defensive gambit so admired in this country - though often enviously scorned beyond these shores - is presiding over a situation where his side are conceding, on average, north of 25 points in a league brimful of mediocrity.

At times, there is literally no defence.

Throughout the inconsistency of this campaign there have been consistent mitigating factors.

Their underpowered pack was flummoxed on day one when the luckless Marcell Coetzee was crocked, followed soon after by Jean Deysel, two players who Ulster hoped would provide some much-needed punch up front.

Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding are unavailable and heaven knows if either will return, due to factors beyond the coach's control.

The pleasant surprises - John Cooney's emergence in his third provincial coming as a top-class goal-kicking scrum-half, and Jacob Stockdale's credentials as a World Cup starting wing - have been undone by fault-lines all around them.

Renaissance

Even the temporary relief provided by Christian Lealiifano's remarkable rugby renaissance will be removed once he departs later this month, while the erratic displays and injury travails of another departing star, Charles Piutau, have hindered the side's progress.

Rumours of another big-name signing from the southern hemisphere may serve to alleviate some of the gathering gloom, but without clear direction it seems ever more difficult to see how Ulster can end a trophy drought that stretches back to their 2006 Celtic League win.

Munster may be weakened today in strength and so Ulster might hope to get an all-too-familiar bounce, but the fissures will still remain and could be exposed days later in Dublin.

Seven years after the grandest of mission statements, and 12 years after their last trophy win, the Ulster supporters' itch for success remains stubbornly unscratched.

Even if Kiss is living on borrowed time, perhaps the spotlight should be shining on other areas of an organisation that is built to support a great team, but doesn't have one.

Irish Independent

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